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Keota Man Grows Exotic Berries

July 20, 2011

Visitors to the Washington Farmers Market were treated to free samples of a native but lesser known berry in Iowa. Levi Lyle of Keota set up a booth at the market to display the products he makes from aronia berries. Market goers got to taste his aronia salsa and aronia jelly at no charge. Thursday was Lyle’s debut as a vendor. He said he will be back with even more aronia products at next week’s Farmers Market.

Lyle grew up on a farm near Keota. He attended the University of Northern Iowa and later taught high school science for two years in Tama and Janesville. He earned a master’s degree in student administration and then secured a job at Simpson College where he worked in a program called “Upward Bounds,” which prepares low-income students for college.

After five years at Simpson, he moved back to Keota. His current occupation is as a social worker for Independent Child Advocate Services, a task he performs in Washington, Kalona, Wellman and Keota. When he’s not doing social work, he helps his father Trent farm.

It was not until his return to Keota when Lyle became interested in growing aronia berries. His Indianola neighbor Thomas Schwink converted much of his lawn into a garden. Schwink grows every kind of fruit under the sun.

“He grows peaches, strawberries, raspberries, pears, apples and fruits I had never heard of, which really baffled me,” said Lyle. “Aronia was one of them.”

Lyle had never eaten an aronia berry in his life until tasting them in Schwink’s garden three years ago. Lyle took his then 1-year-old daughter Olivia to Schwink’s garden. Olivia could not get enough of the aronia berries.

“She would eat them by the handful,” said Lyle. “I had her on my back, and when I would kneel over at one of the bushes, she would pick the berries within arm’s length. I came to realize that kids have not been inundated with the sugar that we, as adults, think everything has to have. They don’t mind the tart flavor of aronia.

Lyle decided to grow his own patch of aronia berries after tasting them at his neighbor’s garden. He found an arable spot on his property in Keota to grow them, and did not have to take any crop ground out of production. He sets aside one acre for the berries, and in that acre he can fit 1,000 bushes. Each bush produces 20 to 30 pounds of berries. As aronia berries mature, they turn from green to purple and finally to black before they’re harvested.

Lyle, his wife Jill and his daughters Olivia and Elyse pick the berries by hand. He said that if people want to grow their own aronia plants and harvest them by machine, he recommends planting 500 bushes per acre. He said blueberry pickers can be converted to harvest aronia berries.

What sold Lyle on aronia were its nutritional benefits. Aronia berries have among the highest concentrations of antioxidants of any food on earth.

“Antioxidants are vital to our health,” said Lyle. “They prevent diabetes and heart disease. That is the reason I’m interested in aronia.”

Lyle’s aronia berries are organic. That means the land is not sprayed with commercial fertilizer, herbicides or pesticides. He had to add mulch and other organic compounds to the field in the beginning to give it more nitrogen. Since his bushes are 3 years old, he doesn’t need to add more nitrogen. He said aronia berries require very little weeding or other maintenance.

“Aronia berries are native to Iowa, “he said. “They grow in our soils well. We don’t need to mess with them. Nature does its best when we leave it alone.”

From his berries Lyle makes salsa, jelly, juice and even candles. He had all of those items on sale Thursday.

“The recipe for the jelly is Thomas’s,” said Lyle. “My wife, my kids and I go to his house to make aronia jelly with him and his family.”

Lyle also incorporates aronia into bake goods such as cookies and muffins. He plans to bring those to the Farmers Market next week. Aronia berries find their way into quite a few of the Lyles’ meals.

“At my house, we eat berries every morning on our cereal,” said Lyle. “We make smoothies out of them, and we’ve made an aronia apple crisp. I love putting them in stir-fry. For me, it’s not too tart at all. It’s a fruit you grow to appreciate when you want to eat natural food.”

Lyle now sells his aronia products at the Farmers Markets in Washington, Sigourney, and Iowa City. He plans to promote them in Homestead when RAGBRAI comes through the city this summer.

Article by Andy Hallman, The Washington Evening Journal